Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern

As the annual RMB Turbine Art Fair approaches, there’s much to be excited about. An exhibition of still lifes by Irma Stern, however, is already getting people talking. Dave Mann spoke to Strauss & Co’s Dr Alastair Meredith, Susie Goodman, and Wilhelm van Rensburg to find out a bit more.

This exhibition will serve as a refresher on her work, and on the various forms of still lifes and what they represent

Irma Stern
White Lilies, Irma Stern, 1936. Oil on canvas Sold by Strauss & Co, November 2010

     The exhibition, presented by Strauss & Co and titled Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern, will feature a host of works by the painter from a number of private collections. The exhibition also seeks to expand on the notion of the ideal collector and what they can achieve in a lifetime of collecting. But with many of the artist’s works sitting in corporate or private collections, Stern’s life and works aren’t widely known. So just who was the painter Irma Stern?
     Born in 1894 at Schweizer-Reneke in the Transvaal to German-Jewish parents, Stern spent much of her younger years travelling with her family to Berlin and across small towns and rural communities in South Africa. She would then live and study in Germany, where she’d be heavily influenced by German Expressionism, before moving back to South Africa in 1920. From there, Stern travelled to destinations across Africa – including Zanzibar and the DRC. In 1926 Stern was married in Cape Town and acquired ‘The Firs’, which is now known as the Irma Stern Museum. She continued to travel and paint, and built up a strong relationship with her friend and muse, Frieda Feldman over the years, often staying with her in the Feldmans’ Johannesburg home. By the mid-1940s, Stern began to gain recognition as an established artist and her works were exhibited in shows across South Africa and abroad. Stern passed away in 1966 at the age of 71.

To look at a still life by Stern is to be offered a brief vignette of the artist’s personal life. Objects and vessels such as bowls or vases appear frequently in her paintings, providing a glimpse into what would otherwise be a very intimate space – Stern’s private studio and home

     Just how much of Stern’s life and history can be gleaned from her still life paintings? According to Strauss & Co’s Dr Alastair Meredith, Susie Goodman, and Wilhelm van Rensburg – quite a lot.
     ‘When she got her first house at The Firs in Cape Town, she immediately started gardening, planting trees and flowers,’ explains Van Rensburg. ‘They all flowered, and her garden was this profusion of colours, and so she would paint what she saw.’
     ‘And when she would stay at Frieda Feldman’s house,’ adds Goodman, ‘she used to take over the dining room. She literally painted the fireplace. She and Feldman used to throw these brilliant themed dinner parties, too, often based on colour.’
     If, like many, you’ve always been curious about the story of Irma Stern then Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern is your chance to catch a first-hand glimpse into the treasured artist’s work and life.
     To read more about how Strauss & Co approached UJ students, the University of Pretoria and Tshwane University of Technology to introduce them to Stern, to still life, and putting that genre into context, globally, purchase our July 2018 issue or to continue supporting the arts and culture sector, subscribe to our monthly magazine.